Implementing Soil Screening, Health, Outreach and Partnerships (soilSHOPs) in Partnership with Local Communities in Atlanta, GA

This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series July 2023

Community-engaged soilSHOPS can build trust while raising awareness about lead soil contamination and preventing exposure to lead, which is especially important given the growth of urban agriculture in communities that have experienced environmental injustices.

Urban agriculture is a valuable solution to address food insecurity and improve access to healthy foods, but it also poses the risk of exposure to soil contamination such as lead. This issue is especially relevant in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to pollution sources being predominantly located in areas with a high population of color, we have high levels of poverty and limited access to healthy foods and transportation in Atlanta. 

Our team — consisting of an academic institution, federal, state and local government, community members, and a local community-based non-profit that builds home and community gardens — worked to address this concern by implementing soil Screening, Health, Outreach and Partnerships (soilSHOPs).

We describe the partnership, our soilSHOP implementation, outcomes, and the significance of the partnership in our recent JPHMP publication, “Developing and Implementing In-Person and Virtual SoilSHOPs in Atlanta, Georgia, as a Community-Engaged Approach to Screen and Prevent Soil Lead Exposure.”

Who we are:

Our partnership formed out of the community engagement infrastructure of the HERCULES Exposome Research Center at Emory University. HERCULES supports environmental health research and its community-engagement core partners with communities and stakeholders to identify and address local environmental health concerns. HERCULES’ community engagement efforts are guided by a Stakeholder Advisory Board (SAB) which consists of representatives from local communities and nonprofits, local, state, and federal government agencies, and other academic institutions. 

Emory scientist Eri Saikawa and her lab (the Saikawa Lab) identified possible lead contamination on land planned for urban agriculture in Atlanta and reached out to HERCULES to identify partners to expand their work. Historic Westside Gardens (HWG), a nonprofit member of the HERCULES SAB that builds and supports home and community gardens in historically disinvested neighborhoods of Atlanta, partnered with the Saikawa Lab to test their home and community gardens for lead.

Their community-engaged partnership also wanted to provide soil testing for others in the community, so they partnered with HERCULES SAB members from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), who had been building local capacity to host soilSHOPs.

What we did:

Between 2018 and 2021, we conducted in-person and virtual soilSHOPs to screen soil lead levels and increase awareness about lead exposure prevention in Georgia. We held two in-person soilSHOPs at HWG community gardens and, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two virtual soilSHOPs for anyone in Georgia. HWG and community members promoted the soilSHOPS by distributing flyers, including soil collection instructions, throughout the communities in which they work.

Community members brought their soil samples to the events or dropped them off or mailed them for the virtual events, where they were tested for lead concentration for free, using field portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers. The health agency partners also provided health education on lead hazards, ways to reduce lead exposure, and safe gardening practices.

At the first community-engaged soilSHOP, a community member brought a rock-like material that she said was all over her yard and that of her neighbors. The Saikawa Lab determined that it was industrial slag, an industrial waste formed during ore smelting, and contained very high levels of lead.

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Upon sharing their discovery with their EPA partners, the EPA reported it to the state’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD), who requested EPA support to address the contamination. The EPA met with community members about their reported slag contamination and initiated a Superfund Investigation. That investigation has since resulted in a Superfund designation and clean-up, and this crucial work and partnership continue to this day.  As one community resident stated, “This goes beyond just cleaning up the soil. This is about our health, and the health of our grandchildren growing up here now.” 

Key takeaways:
  • In-person and virtual soilSHOPs can increase awareness and expand outreach about potential lead soil contamination and ways to minimize lead exposure.
  • Working in partnership with the community was integral to reach residents, gain trust, and identify a significant environmental contamination that led to a Superfund designation and clean-up in a historically disinvested community.
  • Community engagement and multisector partnerships developed through soilSHOPs can contribute to building trust and enhancing sustainability for continued outreach.
  • Existing community engagement infrastructure can provide the support necessary to initiate and sustain partnerships that address community environmental health and justice concerns like lead soil contamination.
  • Virtual soilSHOPs are an effective way to maintain and expand outreach despite physical limitations (such as the COVID-19 pandemic).
  • Through education on best practices to grow food safely and limit exposure to lead, soilSHOPs may be a useful tool to advance food insecurity interventions.

Read more about our partnership and soilSHOPs in our recent JPHMP publication: “Developing and Implementing In-Person and Virtual SoilSHOPs in Atlanta, Georgia, as a Community-Engaged Approach to Screen and Prevent Soil Lead Exposure.”

Erin Lebow-Skelley, MPH. Ms. Lebow-Skelley earned her Master of Public Health degree in Health Behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health with a focus on community engagement and evaluation. She currently manages the community engagement efforts of the HERCULES Exposome Research Center.

Rosario Hernandez, MA. Ms. Hernandez is the Executive Director of Historic Westside Gardens, which fosters community self-determination through building equitable neighborhood networks around healthy, fresh and affordable food. They install gardens at homes and in the community, teach citizens how to grow and eat from their gardens, and sell produce at the Westside Growers Market.

Eri Saikawa, PhD, MPA. Dr. Saikawa is an associate professor and Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University. Her research interests include quantifying the sources and the magnitude of various emissions linked to air pollution and climate change, and how they impact humans and on society. 

Faith Flack-Walker, MPH. Mrs. Flack-Walker is a Health Educator for the Chemical Hazards Program at the Georgia Department of Public Health. Her role focuses on efforts to reduce, eliminate, and prevent exposures to hazardous chemicals in the environment.

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